Wednesday, July 28, 2010


A warning.

This talk starts nowhere, and goes nowhere.

Welcome to Zen.

In several of my travels, particularly in Asia, I’ve been asked why most Americans are dabblers. We are often perceived as a nation of faddists. We tend to pick up on short-term things that come and go. In many foreign eyes, Americans are thought of as liking to be thought of as cool, hip, mellow, groovy, awesome.

We latch on to spiritualism, to exotic forms of Yoga, to various types of meditation, to Sufi, to Wicca. All may be reasonable disciplines, at the time, but we seldom stick with any one before heading off to try another.

An example is electronic evangelism. You might be amazed at the numbers of people who subscribe to the claims of some radio and televangelist preachers.

Recently I saw a video of a television sermonizer who beseeched God to grow new legs on a dual-amputee. The preacher also asked God to let the same fellow see through his glass eyeball.

The preacher guffawed and giggled constantly at his on-stage doings, as if he were amused at the credulity of the live audience. However, the audience, to a T, appeared to swallow everything whole.

Honestly, I’m not poking fun at such people. I’m merely mentioning them as examples of the flip-flopping of so many Americans.

Getting back to Zen,

Zen first appeared in the United States in 1893, when Soyen Shaku introduced it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. That’s a good while, so maybe Zen is here to stay.

In the 1940s and 1950s the output of such writers as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth helped to raise the awareness of Zen in America. It’s interesting that all of these fellows were Californians of the so-called Beat Generation. And to this day California is known for its spiritual and consciousness-raising movements, as well as its dabblers.

So, after more than a hundred years in America, is Zen a passing fancy or is it something that is stabilized? Who knows? Who can even make a wild guess? Maybe Zen in America is merely one hand clapping. Or the flapping of the mind, like a wind-blown banner.

Is anyone familiar with the name Tenzin Gyatso? I’m sure everyone is familiar with the person: the exiled political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. He is widely known not for working so-called miracles, or preaching salvation, but for his emphasis on compassion.

Compassion is awareness of the suffering of others. It is the hallmark of Buddhism, including Zen.

Life is suffering, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Once we understand that, we can help others to understand.

This is compassion.

One interesting thing about Zen—I should say one of the many interesting things about Zen: You can put it into practice, no matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem. You don’t have to betray or change your fundamental beliefs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to profess or broadcast you are a Zen person.

Just live Zen. Be Zen.

In Zen you don’t pray. You don’t need someone or something to forgive you or grant you mercy . . . whatever that means. You don’t need anything more than yourself, and an open mind.

Zen is basically meditation and letting go. Flushing your mind and letting it open up.

Traditionally in Asia, Zen has been the calling of monks and nuns, who have dedicated themselves to a monastic life. In America Zen is for anyone who wants to clear his or her mind and seeing themselves for what they are.

Look at us, right here. We are a motley crew comprising artists, educators, scholars, students, musicians, and other fascinating types. We aren’t dues-paying members of any organization. We aren’t bound by vows to a religious life. We don’t live in a monastery. Some of us—or maybe none of us—attend a place of worship.

Most of us get together on a regular basis—Monday evenings—and we sit in silent meditation. No fanfare. No ceremony. No hallowed music. We just sit.

Now, to some people that would sound terribly dull. Most people might think that an hour or so of just sitting with no television to entertain us would be mind numbing.

Instead, it is mind opening. Refreshing.

To non-practioners, Zen may seem irrational. To them it may seem foolish and crazy. But craziness is one of the joys of Zen.

Life itself doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t follow a rational path. Unforeseen things happen. There are tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. People become ill. They die at an early age. Humans may think they control their destinies, but shit happens.

Humans fight against fate because fate isn’t logical. It doesn’t always work to human advantage.

Zen confronts.

In the Japanese No play a Zen priest is asked about zazen. He answers (From A Commentary by Amakuki Sessan, on Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, in A first Zen Reader) as follows:

“Not to lament, . . . ;
“Not to choose whether the law be kept or broken;
“Not to fall into either being or not being—
“This is the sign by which all become Buddhas.”

A monk asked Master Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is Buddha.”
Some time later, another monk asked Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is not Buddha.”

I ask: Do you understand?


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